Investors who have saved more than $250,000 towards retirement feel more confident and are more willing to take the risks of putting their money to work in the stock market than their peers with a smaller nest egg, according to a new survey from Wells Fargo.

The overwhelming majority of investors between the ages of 25-75 with $250,000 or more saved - 88% - said they were confident they had squirreled away enough to enjoy the life they wanted in retirement. Just 57% of those with less than the magic mark were so sanguine.

It comes as little surprise that those with more money are more comfortable than those with less. But there’s more to it than that. Wells’ in-house retirement gurus make the point that this is not the difference between the independently wealthy and the struggling working class. In the survey of 1,800 investors, 61% of the working affluent had household incomes of less than $150,000. “What’s striking about the ‘affluent’ is that their overwhelming confidence is not from guessing what they’ll need, but from disciplined saving, watching their spending and detailed planning,” said Karen Wimbish, director of Retail Retirement at Wells Fargo.

So the big difference between the haves and have-nots boil down to behavior. “It’s almost like ying and yang,” said Wimbish. Here’s a breakdown. Of those with $250,000, a whopping 71% say they have a written financial plan for retirement – the highest number Wimbish said she’s seen in the last few years, when 30% to 50% of investors said they had a plan. Of those with a plan, 55% of them say the plan includes how much they’ll need to spend in retirement. Those with $250,000 or more are also taking action. They contribute a median of 12% of their salaries to their 401(k) plans – a generous amount. Only 25% of them admit that they should cut back on their spending. And over half of them have such confidence that they say the stock market is where their retirement assets should be.

On the other side, those with less than $250,000 are only putting a median 7% of their salaries into their 401(k) plans, and three quarters admit they’re just guessing at how much they need to save for retirement. Fully half admit they’re spending too much and need to cut back. Not surprisingly, their confidence level in the equity markets is low, with only a third recognizing the need to invest in stocks to protect their purchasing power in the face of inflation. Their choice of investments? CDs, money markets and, in some cases, gold and precious metals. 

Still, there are some things they have in common: both grossly underestimate the costs of health care in retirement, and assume they can withdraw more than they should from their savings. The affluent expect to withdraw 7% a year, still double the 3.5% recommended by planners, while the less affluent expect to take out 10%, which is “totally outside the realm of reality,” Wimbish said.

The affluent think health care will cost them $60,000 in retirement, while the less affluent guess it will cost $49,000. The real answer: $250,000-$300,000 for a couple in retirement, according to studies, which only accounts for Medicare deductables and other basic costs like vision, not catastrophic illness or nursing home care.

But, Wimbish said all was not gloom and doom. She was encouraged that the majority of the affluent in this survey are not “the 1 percenters.” She noted that three quarters of those surveyed who are still working have household incomes of under $150,000. “So to me it says you don’t have to be an affluent earner to become an affluent saver and investor,” she said. “It’s around planning, saving managing your spending and a balanced portfolio that allows you to become an affluent saver and investor, not because you’re making $250,000, $500,000 a year.”

Plenty of scope for advisors to step in and teach good financial habits to those investors who do not already have them on their own.

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